Fallen leaves crunched under Paige’s boots, disturbing the whisper of a breeze through the woods. She kept a tight grip on Melissa’s hand and guided her younger sister across the street to the right. Every so often, the girl looked up with a broad smile brimming with adoration. Did I give Amber that same face? Her black cloud crawled out of the neckline of her jacket and hovered a few inches to her left.
For most of her life, Paige had worshipped the very ground Amber walked on. She’d spent more time trying to fit in with her older sister’s friends than finding ones her own age. Not that her parents noticed, but Amber’s death had gutted Paige. She hadn’t paid much attention to anyone―least of all Melissa―for the first few months after that night. As best she could remember, the little one hadn’t reacted much. For all she knew, her sister bawled her eyes out for weeks on end. It was hard to tell what went on when you’re curled up in a ball trying to wish the world away.
Melissa shrieked and pulled back.
The sudden noise on top of Mom’s suggestion of danger in the woods brought a yelp of fear from Paige before her brain shrugged out of her spiral of bleak. She looked around, seeing nothing threatening. “W-what?”
Melissa pointed at the ground, and burst into tears. “It’s icky!”
About three feet in front of them, a dead deer lay covered in flies. Six or seven feet of smear continued in the direction a car had been going. Paige waved at a pair of buzzing black dots checking out her face.
“It’s roadkill, Mel. It won’t hurt you.”
“It’s eww!” Melissa writhed in an effort to escape Paige’s grip on her hand. “It’s got like all the bugs!”
Paige glanced back to make sure no cars approached, and strayed into the road to give the carcass a wider berth. Melissa continued squirming and making faces for a while after they’d passed it, until the trill of a distant bird distracted her attention into the trees.
The road between their house and downtown went a little over a half-mile, past six other houses. Two sat so far back in the woods at the end of long unpaved driveways she’d only guessed at their presence due to mailboxes next to the road. At the approximate halfway point between home and Shadesboro, the hill leveled off and the opening at the end of the tree tunnel filled in with signs of civilization: parked cars, streetlamps, and buildings.
“Are there snakes?” asked Melissa.
Paige shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe copperheads or something.”
Melissa whined and tried to climb her.
“Get off.” She stopped short of shoving her away.
Sniffles. “B-but Pay… snakes.”
“Well, you wanted to walk. How long have you been afraid of cars?”
“Since before.” Melissa kicked at an acorn. The pink ruffle around her ankle wobbled like a limp daisy.
“How much did they tell you?”
Melissa looked up, her gait slowed to a near standstill. “Amber got hurt inna car ‘cause she was with Eric and let him drive.”
Paige squatted, holding her sister’s hand in both of hers. “Right. It wasn’t the car. Eric had too much to drink. He blew through a light and they got hit.”
“Why did he blow up a light?” Melissa tilted her head.
Paige couldn’t help but smile. “I mean he didn’t see it turn red. He drove right through it. Getting in a car isn’t going to hurt you. It’s alcohol that’s the problem.”
“Oh.” Melissa looked down as they got underway again. “Daddy won’t talk about it. Do you think he’ll ever smile again?”
“I dunno.” Paige decided to play kick-the-acorn as well. “I miss her too.”
“Don’t go away,” whispered Melissa. “Please.”
Paige cringed. How much did she hear? “I won’t. I don’t think I even wanna go to college.”
“It’s okay if you don’t want me touching your stuff.” Melissa jumped at a snap in the woods and let out a gasp.
A deer perked up, staring at them.
Paige’s boot scuffed on the paving, echoing into the trees and spooking the critter into a sprint. Melissa squeezed her hand, looking around whenever a bird squawked or something made noise among the trees. A steady cascade of snaps, thumps, and rustling came from everywhere. It didn’t seem scary, but it made her imagine an army of invisible gnomes working on wrestling moves. Every so often, a squirrel appeared and raced up the side of a tree, though they couldn’t possibly have made the deeper thuds.
Her sister kept quiet for the remainder of the walk into town. Soon, forest gave way to a row of small shops, a McDonalds, and a coffee shop with green and white signs that looked like an attempt to trick tourists into mistaking it for a Starbucks. They passed a Hess station on the right corner, across the street from a small First Fidelity bank. Beyond the gas pumps, a strip mall with clothing and ski supply stores stretched northward.
Five blocks in, Paige felt like she stood in the center of the smallest town left in the US still large enough to have concrete buildings instead of something lame like log cabins. She kept waiting to see the creepy hillbillies or local cop who looked ninety-five years old, but most of the people running around appeared to be out-of-towners preparing to head south to go skiing. Not that Paige felt much like a ‘local’ yet.
Melissa’s grip tightened on her hand as the pedestrian traffic thickened. Paige headed straight for the school grounds: four blocks in, left turn, three blocks down. She pulled her sister along a little too fast for small legs, but she wanted to beat the clock. Though she had only skimmed the paper Mom left on her bed, she remembered first period started at 8:00 a.m. According to her cell phone, she had about forty-two minutes.
She brushed among a scattering of high-school students on the sidewalk rimming an impressive slab of concrete bearing silver metal letters: Emmet G. Waterford Memorial High School. Who the hell is that? Well, was…
A channel of parking lot capped by a large grassy field divided a pair of buildings in the general shape of two Ls pointing their long ends at each other. The structure on the right was Shadesboro Elementary, as indicated by a smaller sign nearer the entrance. A pastoral spread of autumnal leaves shrouded the outer edges of both schools, rustling in a gentle breeze.
Clattering came up behind them. Paige glanced over her shoulder at a boy, probably in seventh or eighth grade, in a deep squat on a skateboard. He jumped a mild incline at the edge of the parking lot entrance and careened on a collision path with Melissa, who screamed.
The boy looked up, startled. He lunged forward and stomped the nose of his board, which flipped up behind him as his sneakers clomped hard on the asphalt. He caught the board at his side in what appeared to be a well-practiced maneuver, and came to a stumbling halt within arm’s reach of them.
“Uhh, sorry.” He flashed a cheesy smile and ran off with the board tucked under his arm.
Melissa seemed unable to decide if the near miss was worth an explosion of tears, and rendered a noncommittal sniffle. She kept quiet as Paige led her up the same steps the boy took.
The office, walled in glass with thin aluminum strips, sat on the far side of a large atrium filled with sports trophy cases and paintings of boring, stuffy-looking old men in suits. She trudged over a six-foot circle bearing a grimacing cartoony goat in a football helmet, and shoved open a door that scraped with a sound like tearing metal.
A pudgy, grandmotherly woman looked up from behind a counter tall enough to reach Paige’s collarbones. The woman’s glasses only half filled their frames and dangled on a beaded chain. She flashed an expression of mild disdain after her gaze darted between them.
Paige smirked. “What? We just moved here. First day.”
“Oh. I was just wondering where your parents were.” The woman’s apprehension faded away to the sort of smile that could give someone diabetes. “Name?”
“Mine or hers?” Paige fidgeted.
“Well, why don’t we start with hers? You look a bit old for this half of the school.” The woman winked. “I’m Mrs. Reinhardt.”
“Melissa Thomas. She was in third grade back home.”
Two other older women crept up to get a look at the little one. The usual chorus of ‘awws’ followed.
Melissa tilted her head, grinned ear-to-ear and waved. “Hello. We’re new here. I’m Melissa, and that’s my sister Paige.”
Mel’s gonna get carded when she’s thirty.
Mrs. Reinhardt handed Paige some papers Mom needed to sign. “You can take her down the hall to Miss. Phelps’s class. It’s the sixth door on the left side labeled 3B. I’ll call ahead and let her know you’re coming.”
“Thanks,” said Paige.
Melissa waved again to the office grandmothers and followed Paige down the hall to the indicated door. The roar from a sea of third-graders left to their own devices prior to the start of class rumbled from within. Her little sister seemed as unfazed at the thought of walking into a room full of strange kids as she had at leaving their home behind to go two hours away.
“You gonna be okay?”
“Thanks for walking me.” Melissa raised her arms as if about to hug her, but flashed a sheepish smile instead. “Sorry.”
Paige’s voice echoed ‘stop touching me!’ in the back of her mind. Okay, so calling Amber back from the dead wasn’t her only special power. She could make little sisters burst into tears at will too. She gave her a one-armed mini-hug. “S’okay.”
Melissa’s pink dress flared as she spun to face the door and walked inside, glossy pink backpack gleaming in the overhead lights. Paige edged up and leaned on the doorjamb, smiling as quiet settled over the kids when they noticed a newcomer. Melissa marched up to a woman about Mom’s age with mouse-brown hair, who tended to something on the computer at her desk. The teacher smiled at her before casting a warm look in Paige’s direction.
Melissa twisted around to grin at her. “That’s my sister, Paige.”
Mrs. Phelps glanced at her watch and nodded in the direction of the high school.
“Yeah, yeah,” mumbled Paige.
She waved at Melissa and trudged down the hall, deciding to head through the long strut of the L, which would open closer to the high school. After she crossed the central atrium, rooms for the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade classes went by on either side, as well as a few doors labeled ‘Aux’ or ‘Music.’ The older kids seemed far quieter than those in the other hallway. Paige stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets and marched to the door with her head down. I guess I have been crappy to Mel.
Sniffling echoed from somewhere nearby.
Paige stopped. She lifted her head and pulled her hair from her face, twisting side to side. The quiet whimpering seemed to be emanating from the lockers on the left. Her gaze ran down a row of narrow metal doors devoid of padlocks, stopping on the only spot that had one. She crept up to the door.
“Hello?” She leaned up to the vent slats. “Is… someone in there?”
Two eyes and a pale face appeared in the slits.
Paige gasped and jumped back. “Holy crap.”
“Let me out,” whined a tiny voice. The door rattled. “They tricked me.”
“It’s locked,” said Paige.
“I know. I can’t get out.” The girl inside cried.
Paige glanced down the hall toward the office. “I’ll get a teacher, hang on.” She grumbled, grasping the padlock. Who the hell puts a―
A pall of dizziness swam around in her head. She braced her other hand on the lockers as her legs went to jelly. The wall of identical metal doors painted in pea green faded away to an enormous round combination dial, as if she’d held it up to her eye. The numbers rotated to thirty-eight, counterclockwise to nineteen, then clockwise again to eleven.
Paige blinked and shook off the daze. She stared at the lock draped in her fingers. What the hell was that? The sniffling on the other side of the door grew louder. She cocked her jaw at it. “I’ve got a ghost in my bedroom. Hallucinating shouldn’t be this weird.”
“What?” asked the girl.
“Uhh, nothing.” Paige dialed in the sequence from the daydream. Her smirk evaporated to a startled gasp when the hasp popped free. Whoa.
The kid rattled the door. “Help!”
Paige twisted the lock and pulled it out. The door flew open, revealing a tween in a black dress and socks, black shoes, and long, straight black hair down to her waist. Red rimmed her brown eyes. She looked up at Paige as if seeing a ghost.
“Who are you? You’re in high school, right? What are you doing over here?”
“First day in town.” Paige took the girl’s hand and helped her unfold herself from the otherwise empty locker. “My little sister’s in third.”
“Oh.” The girl wiped her face. “Thanks. I’m Sofia. I, uhh, gotta go. I’m late.” She started away, but stopped to check out Paige’s head-to-toe black. “Nice outfit.”
“You too.” Paige chuckled and pocketed the lock. Mine now.
Sofia ran deeper into the building, heading for a door marked 8A.
Thirty-ish feet later, Paige pushed open a side door and went outside, squinting at a blast of autumn wind and leaf bits. By now, the parking lot had filled up, with the exception of a row of spaces nearest the street. Most of the cars looked like they belonged to kids taking auto shop, since no way would a responsible adult drive something in that condition further than walking distance from their house. Nearer the high school, a few looked newer. She jogged up another five-step concrete staircase littered with cigarette butts to a raised walkway that curved around a statue of some prig in an old-looking military uniform.
The front of the high school had three pairs of double doors where the grade school had one. A similar layout contained a big atrium crammed with trophies, but these held larger awards… and more of them. Rather than pictures of old dudes, the walls held a shrine to past quarterbacks of the Goats. Paige sighed in her throat. Great. The whole place is football crazy. Her pet cloud had grown wider than her shoulders by the time she walked straight into the glass door for the office.
A thin man in a grey tweed jacket with thick brown hair, glasses, and a dense moustache looked up from behind the desk and made a pulling gesture.
She yanked it open. The door went the opposite direction from its counterpart in the grade school, but emitted the same squeal of grinding metal. “Funny. What genius reversed it?”
“Sorry?” The man cocked an eyebrow.
The four women at desks behind him seemed half the age of the grade-school clerks. Not one of them looked up.
“Never mind… Uhh, I’m starting today. Do I have to, like, check in or something?”
He moved to a computer terminal. “Name?”
“Paige Thomas. I’m a sophomore.”
The man typed for a few seconds. “Held back? Says here you’re sixteen.”
“No. July birthday.” She sighed through her nose. “I was going to school in Philly, so I probably could jump right to junior year if you want in this place.”
“Oh, here it is.” He tapped the screen and a laser printer whirred to life. “Your schedule’s already set. Looks like you’ve got a few minutes yet before the bell. Head to the cafeteria for now.” He handed her two papers with a class schedule, teachers, and room numbers on it.
She glanced over the form:
“What’s SOP?” She flicked a fingernail over the corner. “Standard Operating―”
“Sophomore.” He chuckled. “Do you have a parent outside? There’s a few things we need signed.”
“No, I walked. I can bring it home.” She held out her hand.
“Sorry. I can’t release the documents to a minor. A parent will need to come in.” He seemed a little apologetic in his smile, or was it patronizing?
“Yeah, okay. I suppose you get a lot of kids forging their parents’ signatures to attend school.”
The man shook his head and sat back in his chair.
Paige fished her cell phone from her pocket on the way out of the office and swiped her finger around, tracing the password glyph. Three taps later, she held ringing to her ear.
“That was fast,” said Dad. “What happened?”
“Nothing.” Paige trudged toward the cafeteria. “Mr. Flanders at the office says you or Mom has to sign some stuff. They wouldn’t let me bring it home.”
“Oh.” He exhaled. “I’ll head on down there in a few minutes. Do you, uhh, need anything?”
A dozen different answers swirled around in her head, but all that came out of her mouth was―“nah. Mel’s checked in. I got her paperwork for you.”
“Okay. I might as well deal with that as well. I should be there in about ten minutes.”
“’Kay. See ya.” Paige hung up and shouldered through a pair of green flapping double doors.
The lower-grade hallway had nothing on the roar within the high-school cafeteria. Hundreds of students ranging from fourteen to some who looked nineteen crammed themselves into long row tables. Freshmen draped over book bags big enough to hide bodies in. Others appeared to be trying to sleep. The usual cliques: jocks, cheerleaders, misfits, and supernerds gathered here and there, interspersed among the invisible masses. Paige headed for the far end by a long window looking out on a narrow strip of parking lot behind the building, as well as the forest beyond.
She avoided making eye contact with anyone, kept her head down, her hands in her pockets, and shuffled toward an open spot at the last table by the windows. Paige flopped on the end of the bench seat, within a three-step of a green door bearing an ‘emergency exit only’ sign. Judging by the condition of the push bar, it saw regular non-emergency use. A clock hung to her left above an empty section of wall where she assumed a queue of teens would assemble come lunchtime. About ten minutes to kill.
The schedule printout included a basic map of the building, first and second floor, with room numbers. She plotted a route from the cafeteria to Room 204, where her day would start with chemistry. Ugh. Science first period? I should’ve had coffee.
“Hey,” said a girl.
Paige straightened in her seat enough to get a look at the one who dared invade her aura of solitude. A slim dark-skinned girl with a puff of frizzy purple hair and a plain blue shift dress sat opposite her, bundling a heavy coat on top of a green backpack. She looked at least a junior, maybe even a senior.
“New girl, right?”
“You the welcoming committee?”
“Ooh.” The girl grinned. “One of those days? Wow, are those real?”
“Your eyes.” The other girl laughed. “I’m Renee, by the way. Wow, are they violet?”
“Yeah.” Paige sighed. Oh, boy. Gonna be a month of that in a new town. “And yeah.”
Renee reached for the schedule. “Mind if I see what they did to you?”
“You’re gonna run off with it.”
“No.” The girl made a pff noise. “We outcasts gotta stick together.”
“Outcasts?” Paige blinked. “You look like a model outta Macy’s catalogue or something… well, okay, the purple hair.”
“Thanks, but…” Renee gestured over her shoulder with a thumb. “Place isn’t exactly a varied gradient.”
Paige lifted her head and swept a gaze over the assembly. True enough, Renee seemed to be the only black person in the entire high school. “Wow, Dad really did bring us out to the sticks.” She smiled. “I’m Paige. Sorry, that sucks. We just moved to Shadesboro on Monday.”
“Eh, it’s okay. For the most part the people here are cool… just, well, awkward sometimes.” She seemed sad for a moment, but a smile sprang back onto her face. “I can’t get over your eyes. Anyone else in your family have ‘em?”
“Neither of my sisters do.” Did. She looked down, flicking her thumbnails over the schedule.
“Hey, who’s this?” Another girl took the chair to Renee’s right.
Paige kept her head down.
“Paige?” asked Renee. “What’s up? This is Santana, she’s one of ‘the guys.’”
“Where’s Kenz?” asked the new arrival. “She’s gonna get crap from Mrs. Weems if she’s late again.”
With the urge to cry swallowed, Paige looked up. The girl sitting next to Renee offered a curious look. A black tee shirt with a vampire Hello Kitty face peeked out from under a well-worn, long-sleeved blue flannel. She had dozens of bracelets on both arms, a mixture of cloth, plastic, and loose chains. Santana’s straight brown hair looked even longer than Melissa’s, down to her butt.
“Hey,” said Paige.
Renee snatched the schedule. Two seconds later, her eyebrows shot up. “Oh, damn. Sant, she’s got your dad first period.” She flipped to the other page and back. “Lucky girl. She didn’t get Powers for social studies. He’s such a douche. Ouch, she’s got Pritchard. That man’s so boring he could put Richard Simmons to sleep in two minutes.” She offered the schedule back.
“Who the hell is Richard Simmons?” asked Paige, folding the paper into her coat pocket.
“Powers isn’t that bad.” Santana pulled out a small compact and tweaked her dark eye shadow. “He’s only a douche if you don’t read and give him BS answers on quizzes. Oh, wow. Look at her eyes.”
Paige crossed her arms on the table and let her head fall on them. “Ugh. Great. I get to have people freak out at me all year.”
“Do you have to, uhh… You know.” Santana suppressed a giggle. “I saw on the ‘net that people with violet eyes don’t gotta deal with feminine issues.”
“That’s so a lie.” Paige muttered into the space between her arms and the table.
“Mackenzie should be here soon,” said Renee. “And if you wanna stick around, you’ll probably meet Sofia after school.”
“Sofia?” Paige folded the schedule and tucked it in her jacket. “Weird.”
“What is?” asked Santana.
“I found a kid named Sofia stuck in a locker this morning.”
The other girls exchanged annoyed glances.
“Wait, you guys hang out with an eighth grader?” Paige scrunched up her face.
Renee nodded. “She don’t fit in with kids her age. It was Kenzie’s idea. I kinda feel bad for her. She’s not at all weird and creepy.”
Paige frowned at remembering herself three years ago. “Yeah.”
A girl with shoulder-length blonde hair and model looks rounded the end of the table and swooped into the seat next to Paige like an eagle claiming the top branch. She set a paper carrier holding two cups of fakeo-Starbucks on the table. Both had ‘PSL’ written in marker on the side. This girl had to be eighteen or close to it. Aside from the heavy black eyeshadow, overdone mascara, and spiked black leather choker, she looked like the homecoming queen, even down to a billowy white dress with a hem likely violating school policy.
“Hey,” said the blonde. “New victim?”
Santana took one of the cups. “You’re a lifesaver. Kenz, meet the new girl. Check out her eyes.”
Paige wanted to implode into a tiny space. This girl was way too loud, and attracting stares from nearby tables.
Mackenzie leaned over like a mother hen trying to coax a chick out of the coop. “She’s adorable. So Goth it hurts. You need a choker or something. Maybe some spiked bracelets, and someone needs to teach you how to put on makeup.”
“I’m not wearing makeup.” Paige glared. “I am this pale.”
Mackenzie blinked. “Wow. Purple eyes… contacts?”
Kill me. “No.”
The cafeteria hushed in an instant. Paige looked up. Dad walked in, in full Pennsylvania State Police uniform. Every eye in the room tracked him to the table of ‘outcasts,’ and a few whispers of ‘that figures’ or bets on who was about to get carted off circulated.
Paige pulled the papers from the grade school out of her jacket and held them up as he approached.
“Good morning, Hon.” Dad smiled, taking the papers. He nodded to the others. “Ladies. Everything okay?”
“Yeah.” Oh, God. He’s doing the peacock thing. Now everyone knows my Dad is a cop.
He thwapped the papers into his left hand twice. “I just had a nice conversation with”―he cleared his throat―“Mister Flanders in the office.”
Mackenzie burst into giggles.
Paige shrank. “You took that literally, didn’t you?”
“Yep.” Dad’s expression remained neutral. “He didn’t find it too funny.”
“All right. See you later.” He saluted her with the folded papers and walked off.
Mackenzie leaned up in her chair, staring.
“Are you checking out my dad?” Paige grimaced at her.
“He’s kinda cute for an old man. Gotta be the uniform.”
“That’s nasty,” said Santana.
Renee gazed down, picking at her cup.
An electronic bell noise shredded the quiet, and the room erupted in chaos. Both Paige and Renee remained seated.
“Hey,” said Mackenzie. “Meet up outside after school by the soccer field?”
“Maybe,” said Paige.
Renee sighed and stood. She walked past Mackenzie and joined the throng filing through the main cafeteria entrance.
“Think about it.” Mackenzie leaned over to whisper. “I think you’ll fit right in with us.”
Paige slung her backpack over one shoulder and stood as Kenz merged with the crowd. Out the door, cross the space with bathrooms, down the hall, upstairs, left, four doors. She traipsed along with the flow of students, gazing up at the drop ceiling tiles and three pencils someone had whipped into them like daggers. Her plans of dozing most of the day so she could rush home to stare at her bedroom walls rattled around her head. What kind of losers hang out with an eighth grader? The padlock weighing down her pocket made her think back to the strange episode in the hallway. While trudging up the stairs to the second floor, she took it out and held it, rubbing her thumb back and forth over the dial.
The last time something weird happened… She made a fist around the lock as a tornado of grief swelled up out of nowhere. Dad thought she was having ‘separation anxiety’ after Amber had gone off to school. No amount of begging had convinced him to call her and order her to come home. Her mind swam with images of her old bedroom ceiling, the night she couldn’t sleep. Two in the morning, they’d gotten ‘the call.’ Amber had been killed in a three-car accident on the way back to the dorms from a party. Of course, the police hadn’t dropped the bad news on them until they got there in person. She drifted for a moment, feeling as though she’d gotten sucked back in time to that long, crappy ride in the middle of the night. Too tired to focus, too wound up in knots to dare sleep.
Paige snapped out of it, finding herself alone in a hall full of lockers and doors. Her boot heel squeaked as she turned and backtracked to the classroom she’d walked right past. An energetic discussion about alkali metals skidded to a halt as twenty or so kids and one late-thirties Hispanic man in a dingy olive suit jacket paused to look at her. She caught sight of an open desk near the back and slouched, hair over her face.
“Miss?” asked the teacher.
“Sorry I’m late. First day. I got lost.” Paige hurried to the back of the room and slipped into the desk, clinging to the backpack in her lap.
The teacher walked over and set a chemistry textbook down in front of her. “Welcome to Shadesboro. I’m Mr. Ruiz. You’ll be needing this.” He gestured at a wall of square doors in the back of the class. “Cubby 25 is yours. Apron, gloves, goggles for when we start our project for world domination.”
Chuckling spread through the room.
“Thanks.” Paige kept her gaze locked on the desk.
Mr. Ruiz smiled, patted the textbook, and looked over the class. “I hated public speaking too at your age. Everyone, this is Paige. She’s new in town. Not going to make her stand up and introduce herself, since she’s probably going to have to do that five or six times today.”
Some people muttered hi, some waved, and some ignored her.
“Okay,” said Mr. Ruiz as he returned to the front. “Who can tell me what lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium have in common?”
“They all big words,” said a boy three desks to her right.
Subdued chuckling spread over the class.
They’re all boring. Paige slumped to the side, leaned back, and tried not to make eye contact with anyone.